My Turn: Common misconceptions about Safe Communities

  • ROOT

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Reading the opinion piece of Conway Selectman John P. O’Rourke in the Nov. 21 issue of the Recorder prompts me to write. The Safe Community Bylaw, which the town of Conway is considering, is mired in emotion, misperceptions and misunderstandings about immigrants, immigration law and local police responsibilities. To advance the discourse on Safe Communities and truly explore options for the safety and quality of life in our communities, we need to share some common understandings of the law and the facts.

Central to the debate are three interrelated issues that tend to get muddled: 1. The division of responsibility for enforcement of federal, state and local laws; 2. Whether local police are required to assist federal agencies in the detention and deportation of immigrants; and 3. Whether a person who is in the United States without authorization has committed a crime. It is instructive to look at national discussions and data regarding these issues.

Immigration law is federal law

Many people may assume that local and state police are responsible to enforce all laws, but in fact, there is a division of responsibility, with enforcement of federal laws being the responsibility of federal agencies, such as ICE in the case of immigration law. The same is true of the Internal Revenue Code — local police do not assist the IRS in arresting suspected tax evaders.

Mr. O’Rourke’s article promotes the misperception that municipal employees who do not cooperate with federal investigations of citizenship and immigration status will face grave consequences. While he accurately quotes the U.S. Code, the quoted section concerns harboring non-citizens — not an activity advocates of the Safe Community Bylaw are proposing!

A related misunderstanding is that state and local police are required to assist immigration officials in their work detaining and deporting unauthorized immigrants. Participation by localities in programs to assist in immigration enforcement is 100 percent voluntary. There is no federal law requiring states and localities to gather information about a person’s immigration status. Likewise, there is no federal law requiring states or localities to honor a civil immigration detainer. In fact, the late Justice Antonin Scalia made the point in a 1997 Supreme Court decision that such federal “commandeering” of state or local government resources would violate the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Leading national police organizations, such as the Major Cities Police Chiefs, have taken formal positions against local police enforcing immigration laws. These highly-trained policing professionals know from experience that local law enforcement cooperation with immigration enforcement undermines the trust and cooperation of immigrant communities, undoes the gains of community policing, hurts the ability to investigate and solve serious crimes, and silences victims and witnesses to crimes. These law enforcement leaders know that cooperation with ICE by local police departments negatively impacts public safety.

Is it a criminal offense to be in the U.S. without legal status?

It is a common misperception (shared by Mr. O’Rourke, among many others) that being in the United States without legal immigration status is a crime. There, in fact, is no law making unauthorized presence in the country a crime. It is only a violation of immigration law — a civil violation, not a criminal violation. Thus, Mr. O’Rourke’s fundamental premise, and that of those who share his opinions, is fallacious. Being out of legal immigration status is not a federal, state or local crime.

A corollary to the mistaken belief that all undocumented immigrants have broken the law is the belief that they have or will commit serious crimes. Using the term “criminal aliens,” Mr. O’Rourke suggests that immigrants are a threat to public safety and filling our prisons. Contrary to his assertions, research shows that immigrants commit fewer crimes than native-born Americans and have lower levels of incarceration. For example, the 2010 American Community survey (published in Business Insider on March 1, 2017) found that over the last three decades, native born males ages 18 to 39 are incarcerated at a rate almost twice that of immigrant males of the same age.

The issue of Safe Communities is particularly charged at this moment locally and nationally, yet by being informed — with accurate information — we will create an environment for constructive debate, decision making and ensure public safety for all.

Dolores Root is a Shelburne resident.